Nyssa heard the water before she saw it, but when she'd gotten past enough trees, there it was, not quite parallel to the road: a deep, rushing river, with occasional rapids where foam kicked up off the rocks, and deeper, broader sections where there was barely a ripple on the surface. The river was surprisingly loud, but Nyssa had never been near such a big one before and assumed perhaps they were all like that when they reached that size.
"I want to stop and stick my feet in," she told Pomodoro, bringing the curiosipede to a stop. "I bet it's -" She paused. "I mean, it looks so nice and cool." And she slid off the bench and made her way carefully down the slope to the riverbank, where she found a flat rock to sit on. She set her shoes and socks beside her. In went her toes. Pomodoro, who had no toes, dipped the tips of a few seconds into the water, but pulled back and scooted back onto fully dry land after this experiment.
A head popped out of the water, just in front of where she'd dangled her feet. Nyssa was startled to see that it was a real mermaid, scales and all - the water wasn't very clear, in fact it looked murky on close inspection, but the mermaid had surfaced enough for parts of her tail, bright goldfish-orange, to flash in the sun. "Hi!" chirped the mermaid. "I'm Aura! What's your name?"
"I'm Nyssa," said Nyssa.
"Hi Nyssa! Welcome to the River Woo!" said Aura, brushing her wet orange hair behind her ear.
"It's a beautiful river," Nyssa said - and it was; even without clear water it sparkled and reflected the trees on either side of it in a rippling mirror. "Are there a lot of mermaids here? What do you do all day?" Nyssa had occasionally indulged in the habit of daydreaming during the most ordinary activities about how inconvenient it would be at that very moment if she lived underwater: how would she brush her teeth, or toast a marshmallow, or even sit in a chair?
"Why," said Aura, "lots of things! Let me go get my friends." And she ducked underwater, then came back with five more mermaids, each with scales matching her hair in pink, silver, red, green, and violet. "These are Crystal, Luna, Ion, Pisces, and Indigo! Everybody, this is Nyssa!"
"Hi Nyssa!" chorused the other mermaids.
"You look a little tired," chirped Pisces, the green one.
"I am, yeah," said Nyssa. "I haven't been traveling on foot or anything, but I've been pretty busy."
"Here," said Pisces, and she ducked underwater and came up with a brimful glass jar. "Drink this, it'll make you feel better."
The water did not look very appetizing. It wasn't covered in algae and there weren't any creatures swimming in it that Nyssa could spot, but it was sort of silty, and Nyssa didn't know where the jar had been except insofar as she knew it had been at the bottom of a river. "Um. No thank you, I think I'm all right," she said.
"Are you sure? It really helps balance out your humors. I always drink a glass of this when I'm run down," said Pisces.
"Drink a glass of - what? Isn't it just river water?" Nyssa asked.
"Well, I start with river water," Pisces replied, "but then I fill it with good thoughts and give it a swirl and hold it up to the sunshine! You can't go wrong with that. And if I really need it, I add a snailshell. An empty one!" she added hastily when Nyssa made a face. "Just the shell part. I could go find one if you think you want an extra boost! Or you could just come swimming, it's not as concentrated as the kind in the jar but having water all over you will do wonders, I promise."
"I still don't want it, but thank you," said Nyssa.
"You know," said Aura, sort of squinting at Nyssa, "you're emanating a very tense energy. I think you should really do something about that."
"Do what about it?" asked Nyssa.
"Oh, I can help!" said Crystal, and she dove into the river and came back with an armful of shiny rocks - sharp ones and smooth ones, clusters and singles, carved into prisms and eggs and spheres or left rough. "Would you say it's more of a low tension, or a bright tension, Aura?"
"Oh, definitely a bright tension," Aura said confidently. "A raw, bright tension with pulses of anxiety."
"Mm-hm," said Crystal, dropping most of her rocks back into the river and retaining one in each hand, a clear rose-colored one that looked like a tiny obelisk and a black smooth egg. "Let me just stick these in your ears -"
"Um," said Nyssa, startling back; Crystal retreated with a slightly injured expression. "I don't think sticking rocks in my ears is going to help with any - tension? That I have? And I don't think I'm very tense."
"Of course you're tense," said Ion. "Otherwise you wouldn't be so uptight about people sticking rocks in your ears. I can verify that Crystal's treatment really works. The positive charge of the quartz and the onyx will counteract any negative magnetic fields that may be influencing your thoughts and your bioelectricity, and it's amazing what an improvement that makes. It's a quantum effect, you know, the molecules in the stones are aligned so that -"
"Uh," Nyssa interrupted, "I'm not tense in the first place, though."
"Nyssa," said Indigo, "would you say that you're different from other people? More empathetic, more intelligent - maybe so intelligent that everyday things tend to bore you? Are you often detached from the people and things around you?"
"...sometimes," said Nyssa, "but I still don't want rocks stuck in my ears, please."
"Oh, when were you born, Nyssa?" chirped Luna. "We can adjust things based on which stars govern your life! And which planets! The influence of Mercury is very strong this week, so if you were born under it -"
"I have no idea if Mercury was up when I was born," said Nyssa, bewildered.
"I think she's a winter baby," said Indigo. "No wonder she doesn't want to swim with us, she subconsciously expects unfamiliar environments to be cold!"
"Oooh, I bet you're right," said Crystal, "let me get my sunstones!" She disappeared under the river.
"I don't want any rocks in my ears!" cried Nyssa. "Not even sunstones!"
"Sunstones have a specific heat that means they're especially useful to press against the skin near nerve clusters in the neck and upper back!" said Ion. "Or you can use them on your feet, since you have feet, to activate the sympathetic pathways between various places in the heel and the head, which is known to cure headaches and reduce free radicals. Studies have shown that people who hold sunstones regularly have better alimentary and neuropathic health if you don't control for wealth, exercise, water consumption, or polling practices, and are less likely to be hospitalized for diseases of the pancreas!"
"I don't have any diseases of the pancreas," said Nyssa.
"And wouldn't you rather stay that way?" said Ion, as Crystal reappeared with moonstones.
"Let me have a look at your palm," said Aura, "and then we'll get to the bottom of this -"
"There isn't anything to get to the bottom of!" said Nyssa. "I'm fine!"
"Have you ever tried enhancing your intuitive abilities with hot yoga, a raw food diet, and burning incense?" asked Luna. "I've never tried the incense thing myself because I live in a river, but I can tell you for sure it works, my brother-in-law's neighbor's grandson spontaneously recovered from his toothache!"
"I don't have a toothache either! Stay away from my ears!" Nyssa added to Crystal, who was approaching surreptitiously.
"You really seem like you've got some stunted spiritual growth," said Aura; Pisces and Luna nodded earnestly. "You've already got your feet in the water, why not swim? We can show you all kinds of stuff. You can learn to read the future in the clouds and chart your chakras and walk on broken glass or hot coals. We'd all really like to see someone walk on hot coals, we can't because we live in a river."
"And don't have feet," contributed Ion.
"Everything you're talking about sounds like complete nonsense," confided Nyssa.
"I used to think like you," said Ion. "I wanted clear mechanisms of action and double-blind studies with huge sample sizes. But isn't the really important thing that our methods can make your life better? We wouldn't lie to you. Come in the water, Nyssa."
Luna grabbed for Nyssa's feet, and she just barely managed to scramble back before she was caught. Aura went for her shoes, and it was Pomodoro who shoved those out of the mermaids' reach.
"The water's lovely," cooed Indigo. "It's just right for someone as special as you. Don't you ever feel like you don't belong where you are? That's because you belong here instead."
Nyssa took her shoes from Pomodoro and ran barefoot back to the curiosipede. It rolled on down the road while she put her socks on, and not twenty yards from where she'd met the mermaids, there proved to be a great cascade where the water fell a good sixty feet to another, lower section of the river. A sign read: "Wooterfall".
"No wonder the river was so loud," Nyssa said, shivering, and she stuck her feet in her shoes and rolled on.